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Jason Isbell tells the tales 

It's the kind of behavior that gets people killed. Seems like one of Jason Isbell's friends has taken his girl in and given her codeine. On his latest release, Here We Rest, he tells the tale that had him rambling around his house in his boxer shorts, his pistol by his side, till the wee hours of the morning.

But "Codeine" is not your average drug tale. There are no overt threats — the boxer shorts and pistol part comes from a GQ interview after the song was written. It's left up in the air as to who's gonna pay for this — the girl, the friend or Isbell himself. "It sounds funny when you say my name /It's like you're chewin' on a foreign thing," he says, confronting his drug-addled girl with "them eyes as big as stars." He's got no answers of his own, he goes on to say, but "with you gone the place looks bigger than it should."

But in real life, nobody is dead or seriously injured over the incident. "That's the reason you write the songs sometimes," Isbell says by phone from his Alabama home. "So nobody gets seriously injured."

Isbell is no stranger to tales of woe. As a former member of the Drive By Truckers ('01-'07), he's all too familiar with long back veils and bodies on the barroom floor. But since going solo, even though some of his themes are still tales from the darkside, Isbell's sound is more upbeat. "If I wrote a lot of bitter, sad, depressing songs without at least the music behind those songs to be somehow hopeful, I think it would probably drive me nuts," Isbell says. "I really want to have fun on stage. It's very important to me to enjoy the couple of hours a day I get to do my job, because the rest of the stuff is bullshit."

Before he gets to do his job, Isbell does quite bit of prep work. He's a student of human nature, and his songs are character studies told in a conversational manner that don't sound preachy or pedantic. He doesn't carry a notepad around to capture conversations he overhears but does utilize technology to help him gather information he'll use in a song.

"With smart phones, I can, in a very nonchalant manner, take a note of what the guy next to me said, but usually I'll remember long enough to at least get in private where I can write it down," Isbell says. "I don't know if it's healthy to be that way, but I'm very interested in people's stories, and I just pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the periphery."

It's not just the spoken word that gets Isbell's attention. Since his teenage years, he's paid attention to his musical neighborhood. Growing up in Greenhill, not far from Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals that brought soul to Alabama, Isbell got to know the session players like DBT's Patterson Hood's bass-playing father, David, who played on Muscle Shoals Studios sessions with Aretha Franklin, The Staples Singers, Arthur Conley, Wilson Pickett and the Stones. He also got to know co-writers Dan Penn and organist/composer Spooner Oldham. "I started seeing them around town, and winding up in some of the same places they were in," Isbell says, "and then after I got to know 'em a little bit, I went back, and found out the work they'd done. It was pretty amazing."

That same country soul feel permeates Isbell's work on Here We Rest. "We've Met" has the feel of Muscle Shoals alumni, Duane Allman, combined with the soulful vibe of a Dan Penn composition. And then there's "Go It Alone," with a Jakob Dylan/ Wallflowers vibe. For something a little more upbeat, there's the rollicking second line rattle of "Never Could Believe." He captures the essence of Muscle Shoals soul perfectly with his version of High Priestess of Soul Candi Staton's "Heart on a String."

Isbell says he's not sure how much country soul will be included in future work, but promises that "there will always be elements of that in music that we make. But I haven't written the next album yet, so we'll see how it turns out."

Like his characters, Isbell lives in the here and now. The future is not a great concern. "I don't care, I'll be gone," he quips when asked about his legacy. "I would like to be remembered as the man who had the most money and lived the longest of anyone who's ever lived — that's my legacy," he cackles. "That's all you need, really."

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